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Opinion: Hip-hip-hooray for the passionless

August 10, 2009 12:01 AM ET

Computerworld - I often hear consultants, writers and managers offering advice about how to elicit passion in the workplace. They talk of strategies to help people find their passion, and they endorse weeding out people without the inner drive that they claim is essential to success.

To be blunt, much of this type of talk seems silly at best, self-aggrandizing and delusional at worst. Usually when I hear a manager talk about the passion of "my people," it seems a transparent and cringe-worthy attempt to prove what a great leader he is.

Few ever seem to take a moment to think carefully about the nature of passion and what role it should play in the workplace. They simply assume that passion is a good thing and that the more of it workers have, the better they will perform. I'm not so sure.

One of my favorite scenes from the movie Lawrence of Arabia illustrates my skepticism. Reporter Jackson Bentley is talking to Prince Feisal about the treatment of prisoners of war by the Arab army, which was led, in part, by the British Major T.E. Lawrence:

Feisal: Our own prisoners are taken care of until the British can relieve us of them, according to the [Geneva] Code. I should like you to notice that.

Bentley: Yes, sir. Is that the influence of Major Lawrence?

Feisal: Why should you suppose so?

Bentley: It's just that I heard in Cairo that Major Lawrence has a horror of bloodshed.

Feisal: That is exactly so. With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.

The scene foreshadows Lawrence's bloodlust for slaughtering the retreating Turkish army. His passion for mercy proves unreliable, eventually giving way to an equally strong passion for just the opposite behavior. In the movie, Feisal's manners are invariably impeccable no matter how dire the circumstances or compelling the temptation.

And so it is in life and work that passion is often an ephemeral and inconstant thing. People in the throes of intense emotions can achieve remarkable things. But their passions can also turn destructive. Most often, this sort of emotional intensity cannot be sustained, and deep commitment is followed by periods of disillusion or disengagement accompanied by low productivity.

Also, we need to be honest about the nature of our work. Most projects are relatively routine and mundane. They are interesting but not necessarily inspiring, lacking the import or grandeur required for genuine passion. Rolling out new routers does not induce emotional ecstasy. Composing PowerPoint presentations doesn't resemble writing and refining the "I Have a Dream" speech. Re-engineering accounts payable processing doesn't inspire great poetry.

Of course, there are teams that are truly passionate about a project, some technology or the benefits of their work. If you work for UNICEF feeding children, that's something to get passionate about, even if the technology isn't exciting.

And there are moments when passion is appropriate for technical projects. Some parts of projects do require intensity, like finishing a difficult development. And the rare project devoted to creating something genuinely innovative requires a passionate commitment to the object being created or the benefit being sought.

But in most situations, I prefer to see not a passionate group but a professional one. Professionals are always engaged with their projects and enjoy their work and colleagues -- or at least tolerate them with equanimity. Professionalism is the work equivalent of impeccable manners. It is reliable and steady, and does not depend on the compelling nature of a project or the charisma of a leader. Professionals always get a job done. The passionate may or may not.

Paul Glen is a consultant who helps technical organizations improve productivity through leadership, and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks (Jossey-Bass, 2003). You can contact him at info@paulglen.com.

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